Revenge of the Nerds

Tricky Twenty-Two
Janet Evanovich

If you have many of the symptoms of a disease that has killed a lot of people, but not a major convalescence, it’s safe to conclude that you’re either an alien, blessed with an unusually robust autoimmune system or suffering from a related, less virulent bug. I’m betting on the last which would make me, wait for it, a branch Covidian.

I apologize. But I had to get that out of my system. Now we can move on.

Normally I don’t mind the sort of mild illness that sends me to bed for a few days. Lose a pound or two. Catch up on sleep and put in some serious hours reading and listening.

There are a couple of ways to short circuit that formula and the multi-day pounding headache I dealt with throughout kept me away from anything challenging. Luckily, just before succumbing, I had visited the local library to find something completely mindless to augment the heavier stuff on my reading list. My quest was well-rewarded.

I’ve written about Janet Evanovich‘s primary series and character before. And though part of me feels I should make excuses for such behavior, I won’t. While I find a lot of truth in the idea that the phrase ‘it’s just entertainment’ covers up a lot of sins, there are times I need a break. My life isn’t built for non-stop seriousness.

Some genres just lend themselves to series.

At such moments, I reach for anything formulaic. If you’ve meandered around these pages you’ve encountered plenty of crime stories, some of them purporting to be, or assigned to the category of, literature. Then there are the purely commercial products. That’s what we have here.

Stephanie Plum, the focus of these tales, offers no great insights into the human condition. What she most resembles is a sitcom character. The trick, in the longer-running ensemble shows, is always finding a way to seemingly find new depths in characters who in reality never change much at all.

That describes the ensemble that swirls around Stephanie in her hometown of Trenton. I read the hardcover edition, so I was spared the efforts of the editor who thought adding the words “Queen of Kick-Ass Crime” to the cover of the paperback edition would help goose sales. Stephanie Plum is far more Mack Sennet than Mickey Spillane.

Mickey Spillane is more my idea of kick-ass crime, tho you can start quite a fight over who’s the best Mike Hamer.

In fact, despite the fact that I invariably tag these books as crime fiction, in Evanovich, the crimes are completely ancillary to the comedy. There’s almost a rule that a male detective has to crack wise. Spenser. Jake LeVine. Even William F. Buckley, Jr.’s spy, Blackford Oakes, mouths off. (Yes, I know a spy is not a detective, but the genres are close relatives.)

By comparison, Stephanie takes pratfalls  Wile E. Coyote would admire. Perpetually on the verge of turning thirty, the running gag is that the lingerie-buyer turned bounty hunter brings disaster with her like a holy man his nimbus. For Stephanie, it’s a requirement that she totals at least one car per book and, let’s be clear,  a mere accident won’t do. Better if the car is somehow engulfed in flames. Her apartment is similarly prone to arson.

Plus, she has what my friends with more Yiddish taught me is a mishpucheh. Her employer is her cousin,  a bit of a creep bankrolled by his father-in-law. Her mother is a housewife who’d like to just have a normal life and daughter. She’s got a sidekick, the politically incorrect Lula who has yet to attract the attention of the cancel culture crowd. And she has an 80-something-year-old gun-toting grandmother who, this time, has been catfishing younger men on the Internet, some of whom start turning up on our heroine’s doorstep.

It’s easy to find a missing man-child. Start by looking where you last saw them in HS.

None of that would matter if Stephanie always got her man (and the perps are almost always male). Although the bad guy typically ends up caught, the FTAs (that’s the acronym for Failed To Appear) that Stephanie nabs are most likely to be living with mom. The more committed criminals she brings back to the courts require professional assistance.

Once again while talking of Ms. Plum I find myself addressing anything but plot. That’s because the plot is almost always thin and rarely intricate. If anything, the demands of maintaining a supply of new product seem to work against that. Pynchon can use the mystery as jumping-off point that he polishes into high art. Evanovich moves units.

This time her travails center around a local university, Kiltman College. If I were better acquainted with that part of my state I’d be quicker to identify it, but I’m pretty sure it’s loosely based on The College of New Jersey. The perp who’s skipped bail is Ken Globovic, a student and Supreme Exalted Zookeeper of the Zeta fraternity, a house committed to keeping the flame of  Animal House alive.

His crime? Assaulting a college dean at home, an official who soon goes missing. Rest assured, those are all distractions from the real crime and criminal, which I’ll refrain from identifying. It has to be harder and harder to find a tale to hang the family comic frolics on because they’ve become more fanciful over time. Last time out the actual crime seemed ripped from the pages of a London newspaper. This time It might be Wuhan.

Every once in a while I worry that wasting time in this way reveals my true self and I’m just too wedded to a vision of a persona to understand that. I’m fortunate. I know a lot of highly intelligent people. People who read far more deeply, widely and seriously than I ever could or will. People who treat life more seriously than I do.

In short, I worry that in my own way I’m more like Stephanie Plum than I am her creator.

 

 

 

One thought on “Revenge of the Nerds

  1. They’re terrible books for sure. But they’re mindless, and I can blast through one in an afternoon. But yeah, they’re not award winning in the least.

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